Collected Thoughts

August 2015
August 10, 2015

It’s not easy for an ordinary person in the United States to know how to fulfill the political duties of a citizen. Since, as has been repeatedly attested, the United States is no longer a democratic republic, participating in politics through voting, engaging in discourse with fellow citizens, and making modest contributions to candidates of one’s choice have become largely futile. You can do it to make yourself feel good, but you can scarcely persuade yourself that activities of that sort have effect. They might, of course, if large percentages of the citizenry participated, but we know that’s not the case and not likely to occur any time in the coming decades.

A majority of Americans are extremely ignorant about what government might do, or about what government is actually doing. And there seems to be no way at present to convince them to change their habits. After all, the functioning of government in a large, variegated country is a complex matter. It requires expenditure of intellectual energy to approach minimum comprehension. Yet Americans are renowned for their slackness in accumulating information or in analyzing it. Why that should be the case I’m not sure, but it remains the reality.

Last week’s Republican debate offered another piece of conclusive evidence that mainstream political discourse in America has become thoroughly absurd, that is if you assume that the purpose of discourse is to inform the public about what candidates wish to accomplish. No Republican candidate could ever want to do that because it would ensure defeat in the general election. So the purpose of the so-called debate is to make other candidates look even more foolish than one does himself. In other words, finding a path to victory is the sole goal the great majority of candidates can imagine. The well-being and improvement of the nation are not seriously contemplated in modern politics. Nor do they draw much interest from the major media.

Gaining personal advantage over other people is all America is about. This is designated “freedom.” It’s a peculiar definition, yet it’s the only one most Americans understand.

Roger Cohen had an interesting column in the Times three days ago about the heart of the transatlantic difference. People in Europe mostly want something other than what Americans want, says Cohen. Europeans want a working society in which one can count on basic security in order that personal interests can be pursued without endangering anyone. You might think that would be a form of freedom which makes more sense than the American variety. But the only American politician who dares hint at such a thing is Bernie Sanders. And that’s precisely the reason the mainstream media loudly proclaim that Sanders’s candidacy is hopeless. Americans don’t want a working society; they want the chance to get enormously rich.  That the odds against achieving the latter in America are extremely high is not a truth the media spend much time explaining. As long as the guy barely getting by can dream the American dream -- which, actually, is about nothing but material wealth -- then he remains a dupe in the hands of the people who really are rich. And that’s the way the American political class like it. Chris Matthews of MSNBC has been demonstrating that munificently lately, with his twisted, false attacks on Sanders. Matthews is reputed to make five million dollars a year, not much by real American Dream standards, but still enough to get him into the bottom ranks of the American establishment -- which is exactly where he wants to stay, forever. He can always lie to himself about his rank within the establishment.

So, here we are, without any semblance of sane politics, with Donald Trump actually leading the pack of the Republicans, and the Wall Street-soaked Clintons supposedly in command of the Democratic nomination process. There’s little evidence that things can get more reasonable any time soon. The current feature hopeful people can point to is the large crowds Bernie Sanders is drawing. But the media remain eager to inform us that Sanders’s crowds mean nothing. And perhaps they don’t mean very much.

So as I said at the start it’s hard to know what to do. Recently I’ve been drawn -- somewhat -- to the arguments of historian Morris Berman, who says not that America is failing but that it already has failed, at least so far as the current system is concerned. It cannot be reformed. It will inevitably decay into nearly-complete corruption and vulgarity until finally it self-destructs, so that something new can get underway. The downslide will last, he thinks, for at least another half-century.

The best those who have to live in that half-century can do is to discover small enclaves where people can labor together to preserve qualities from the past, which, when the upturn arrives, might provide lasting values to employ in the new structure. Critical thought, appreciation of literature, genuine aesthetics, are the kind of efforts Berman has in mind. The coming niches  might be similar to the monasteries of the Dark Ages, where the records of the classical period were, at least, saved from total destruction. That would be better than pure hopelessness, or joining in the mayhem of decay.

I don’t think, by the way, that Berman would oppose making contributions to the Sanders campaign out of hope for a near-miracle. Just don’t count on it, though, he would warn. The odds of it happening are very slight.

August 12, 2015

Coming home after a long absence always involves straightening. And straightening always involves finding jottings from the past that had slipped out of my mind. Here’s a set I came across this morning which may be worth sharing.

  • A nation and the population that lives within its borders are not the same thing. In fact, there’s bound to be a good deal of opposition between them. This is a truth not generally recognized as yet. But I think it will come more and more to the fore.

  • States, and their principal manifestation, governments, are problematic enterprises, probably necessary but always to be suspected. And the idea that some states are perpetually good and others perpetually evil is not borne out by the evidence of history.

  • Politics is always, regardless of the euphemisms used to describe it -- and the various idealisms, faiths, morals said to be at work -- primarily a struggle between those who have much  and those who have little.

  • The more one learns about international conditions, the more foolish American foreign policy will seem. That’s because we rely on military force to regulate the world to our liking -- which means to the liking of the U.S. business community. We are military junkies and dead set on following the course of all addicts.

  • We live in a world in which ruthless, reckless, ignorant men can take thousands of lives with impunity. Not only are they not held to account, it is considered unreasonable and improper to press for their accountability.  Their behavior is intolerable for anyone expecting decent and sensible human relations.

  • To the degree possible we should remove mystical values from politics. They appeal to fanatics and they almost always undermine democratic decision-making.

  • I have gradually come to see that the world is such that I can love what I love and try to protect what I want to protect. But I can’t expect any transcendent power to back me up.

  • I don’t know why, but I never wanted to be anything that anybody else defined. Every time I began to move towards something of that sort I got nauseated. A college kid once told me that I didn’t look or talk like a dean. That was one of the nicest things anyone ever said to me. The only comment that may have excelled it was when a Georgetown University coed, acting as an usher at one of the university’s public events, remarked, after I said I hoped I wasn’t too old to climb the stairs to the balcony, “You’re not too old for me.”

  • My career, if you can call it that, was shaped by my waiting to go to graduate school until after I had had experiences that insured I could have little respect for the professors I found there. Most of them struck me as intellectually pathetic. Try as I would to play up to them, I couldn’t do it.

  • There is an impulse built into stupid men to say laudatory things about the institutions they represent. This is the mask of corruption.

  • In religion, the components which maintain and support life are symbols and music. By contrast doctrine and theology seldom do. The latter are mostly trash although, at times, interesting trash.

  • In any relationship in which people do not at first approach one another as human beings, conditions inevitably degenerate such that one becomes the con and the other the mark.

  • People who will kill other people in the name of an abstraction, regardless of whether it’s faith, or justice, or reason, or freedom, or God, or nation, or any other Moloch the mind can dream up, are demented fools. Only when that understanding is firmly established will we turn the corner towards genuine humanity.

  • The worship of the nation-state is a hideous religion. It requires more human sacrifice than any other. It is little more than devotion to selfishness and egotism gussied up with all the paraphernalia of piety. The robes and uniforms of it sicken me increasingly.

  • One can believe in the nobility of war, of course, as one can believe in the beneficence of God. But if it’s to be done, it has to be done without evidence. It has to be done simply because one finds it pleasing. And if the pleasure goes away then the belief disappears in a poof.

  • The notion that one has a special relationship with God is the ultimate egomaniacal belief. Yet that’s precisely what’s claimed by the adherents of almost every established religion.

  • People tend to hold onto what’s familiar to them, even when it’s disgusting. That’s the reason for racism and most other bigotries. Liking inferior things because they’re familiar is all right so long as it doesn’t hurt other people. The trouble is, it very often does.

August 23, 2015

If I were young, healthy, and possessed of an independent income I suspect I would devote my working life to convincing my fellow citizens that the news media they most depend on, that they consider most responsible, are turning them into a pack of imbeciles and ignoramuses. You might say, “Everybody knows that already.” But that would be a mistake. Though many people do know it, they make up a fairly small minority of Americans generally.

Others might say, “The problem is not that the American people consult the wrong sources; the problem is they consult none at all.” This would be harder to refute. Why Americans are so lackadaisical about knowing what’s happening in the world is a mystery no one has solved adequately. If I were working seriously on the problem, I would start with the hypothesis that the quality of news reporting by the large news organizations is so inept, so flaccid, so boring, it becomes very hard for anyone to give it continuing and careful attention. That might not be the central explanation but, still, I think it would be a good place to start. Yet even if I were able to sustain the hypothesis, I would be left with the question of why: why does the mainstream media practice such slovenly journalism? That may be just as great a mystery as why the people are content to be lame brains.

The best way I can think to solve a mystery is to begin with what’s obvious, to start with what’s right in front of you. I recently got reconnected to cable TV after being way from it for almost a year. The habit that smacked me most firmly in the face was the TV news addiction to presenting virtually every conflict as a black/white situation. When major forces are opposing one another, one of them is right and one of them is wrong, and the only function of television journalism is to tell you which is which. This is done so blatantly it’s as though no one can imagine that each side in a conflict is possessed by less than perfectly moral motives while, at the same time having some legitimate interests.

Can it be the case that Americans are so simple-minded they genuinely believe that history has never been, nor can ever be, anything other than good people fighting against bad people?

For  example, this morning on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, GPS (or Global Public Square), former U.S. general Wesley Clark and former Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski were interviewed about the situation in Ukraine. Nothing said by either the moderator or the two guests gave the slightest hint there was anything at work on Ukraine’s eastern border other than Vladimir Putin’s virtually maniacal aggressions. It was a bash Putin segment, and nothing else. And keep in mind, this was on a program that is commonly regarded as among the more sophisticated sites for discussing foreign affairs.

No mention was made of the history of the border tensions there, no explanation of how Putin felt doubled-crossed and lied to by what he considered the promise of NATO not to expand to Russia’s borders, no notice of how NATO has engulfed Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Rumania. Nor was there any remembrance of how the current Ukrainian government came to power in a coup engineered by a U.S. State Department official, aided by neo-Nazi elements in Ukraine.

You wouldn’t have known that respected American scholars have been warning for years that these moves were bound to excite Russian suspicions, and to be seen as outright insults to Putin. No one mentioned Anna Vassilieva of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, who noted that “Russia has been pushed into a corner and that is a most dangerous situation.”

Here’s how Robert Parry of Consortium News views the situation:

As the Ukrainian army squares off against ultra-right and neo-Nazi militias in the
west and violence against ethnic Russians continues in the east, the obvious folly
of the Obama administration's Ukraine policy has come into focus even for many
who tried to ignore the facts, or what you might call "the mess that Victoria Nuland
made." Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs "Toria" Nuland was the
"mastermind" behind the Feb. 22, 2014 "regime change" in Ukraine, plotting the
overthrow of the democratically elected government of President Viktor Yanukovych
while convincing the ever-gullible US mainstream media that the coup wasn't really
a coup but a victory for "democracy.”

I’m not saying that Putin is any sort of shining angel on the international stage, but I am saying that any Russian leader would have to feel threatened by NATO’s radical expansion into Eastern Europe. Now there’s talk of bringing Poland into NATO. And why? What is to be served by stationing American troops in Poland? We already have more than seven hundred foreign military bases around the world. How many more do we need?

Reporting on troubles in the Ukraine is merely one among dozens of stories the mainstream media has turned into melodrama, with clearcut heroes and villains. It seems that anyone who attempts to resist the dominance of Western capitalism is soaked in evil, whereas those who push it are the guys in white hats. To call this journalism is a travesty. It is either pure propaganda or intellectual debility. A journalism that never permits one to see that there are numerous perspectives on how international relations should function is not informing anybody, it’s simply trying to herd.

The American people have become so inured to this sort of news most of them think that’s all there is or all there could be. This has become the American version of freedom of thought -- to be happily brainwashed.

It’s true that many Americans are simply turning off the news because they think it’s all hogwash. But that’s no solution. The next time the U.S. government decides to crank up some crisis as a prelude to launching military action, you can be pretty sure the American populace will fall in line. A decade later they will learn they were duped. They’ll be indignant, but their resentment over past falsehood seems to have no effect on their response to the next dupery down the line.

This is not a good pattern. But how to get people to pay attention to valid journalism is the biggest mystery of all.

August 25, 2015

If you’re going to write about events which occurred two thousand years ago you should accept from the beginning that your conclusions are bound to be speculative. People who think that accounts about the distant past arise solely from “hard” facts have never given any thought to how difficult it is to say, precisely, what happened three weeks ago. You can’t hold time securely in your hands. It dribbles away like the finest of sand.

Even so, we can’t just forget about the past. Its effects are with us regardless of whether we can analyze them accurately. We are who we are because “they” were who they were. They, to a great extent, shape current possibilities. So, when we think about them, we have to speculate.

One such person, whose influence has been significant, was born in Palestine, probably about four years before the beginning of what we now call the Common Era. He is generally called “Jesus,” and millions, perhaps billions, of people think they know a lot more about him than they do.

A great deal has been written about Jesus, but most of it has not been based on historical evidence. Rather it is a gigantic mishmash of propaganda, fantasy, myth, and wishful thinking. There are innumerable mysteries about Jesus but the greatest mystery of all is why his name -- and his life -- have become linked to so many fantastic proclamations. Writers, thinkers, and scholars have been writing about that from almost the moment he died and the indications are that such people will continue to pontificate about who and what Jesus was for centuries to come.

The difficulty, from a historical point of view, is that there is very little evidence about Jesus’s actual life. It’s true that there are four accounts, generally called the Gospels, which purport to be biographies. But there’s virtually no evidence backing any of them up. They are, as a whole, wildly contradictory, and well-substantiated historical evidence renders much of what they proclaim highly improbable and even impossible. Though the Gospels do provide some aid to historians, they are not themselves historical treatises.

It seems unlikely that the people who wrote them -- over the course of about seventy years after Jesus was killed -- had any grasp of what, today, is called historical accuracy. The latter was not a notion that functioned in their minds. Their purpose was not to explain but to bring something about, and their purpose, rather than anything that might be called fact or truth, determined how they used the materials available to them. They made up stuff to persuade people to think and feel as the four wished people to think and feel. And you have to give them credit; they were astoundingly successful.

Anyone in the 21st century who wades into the speculations and proclamations which have been accumulating about Jesus for almost two millennia, with the purpose of dragging historical kernels out of the whole pile, is facing a task that can’t actually be accomplished. There’s just too much to be weighed and assessed for any single human being to do it. And yet the prospect is so tantalizing that some intrepid souls keep pushing their way in. And it’s not crazy that they do, because there’s a great deal to be learned about the human psyche from the tales and toils associated with Jesus.

One person who made the effort recently, and who managed to get, at least, some literary success, is Reza Aslan, whose book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, I just finished reading. Aslan was rewarded by one of the freaks of modern media, in this case a chance to discuss his work on Fox News. His interview with Lauren Green on July 26, 2013, was so bizarre it went -- as we say now -- viral. The consequence was that the book became far more well-known than it would have otherwise. Ms. Green purported not to be able to grasp why Aslan, who is not a Christian, would write a book about Jesus. And as he attempted to say that he was a scholar and was writing out of scholarly interest, her seeming inability to imagine what scholarship is, won her waves of scorn and won him a good deal of sympathy. All this, by the way, was likely not wholly Ms. Green’s fault. She probably had been instructed by her bosses to work up some sort of Christian/Muslim kerfuffle and proceeded to follow orders in a way that backfired. I recall I certainly felt more sorry for her than I did for Aslan. Anyway, that’s how the book went from being simply one more scholarly attempt to solve an insoluble problem and entered that glorious land called “the news.”

Aslan is a good writer and Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth is clearly a worthwhile book. For me its chief value lies in showing just how muddled and uncertain the world of sources for this subject has become. Aslan made a sincere attempt to master the sources and drew reasonable conclusions from them. But the problem is the sources permit all sorts of reasonable conclusions, and, consequently, no particular set of them can be definitive. Aslan’s thesis is that the life of Jesus, the Jewish prophet, is just as interesting, and doubtless more authentic, than the story of Jesus, the Christ. I tend to find that argument persuasive simply because the historical evidence seems to lean in that direction. But, as Aslan reminds us from the start, the evidence itself is fairly sketchy.

Do I know more about Jesus than I did before I read this book? Maybe. Yet the principal thing I gained from the reading was a strengthened comprehension of how thick the mists of time are. Clearly, people lived two thousand years ago. They built grand buildings, they fought hideous wars, they tortured, and laughed and cried. But exactly how they did all this, and what they thought and felt as they did it, are subjects I will never comprehend precisely. And maybe that’s okay. As I think about the tiny slice of history I’ve inhabited, I realize that much of it has already passed beyond the comprehension of most people now alive.

©John R. Turner

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